Season of change continues for defense

If there is one big advantage to spring practice, it is that the fifteen workouts are a time for learning about the team and working on things at a more leisurely pace. The actual games of significance do not occur for several more months, and the South Carolina defense is using this time to not only learn more about its young players, but also make some key changes to their unit.

Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward have been key components in the Gamecocks recent surge onto the national stage, and they are once again hard at work preparing their unit for the grueling fall that is to come.

And while their defense has been consistent in making USC competitive in the Southeastern Conference, they are never satisfied, making some big changes this spring. One such change is the prevalence of more man coverage in their schemes, something they hope will improve the Gamecocks pass coverage and make them better on key third down attempts.

"Well I just think we feel like we've got some young man who we think can play man coverage down here," said Lorenzo Ward following Tuesday's workout. "We feel like that's something that we got away from the last couple years here. We think if we can get good at man we'll be better on third down. We've been impressed with the young guys and what they've done so far."

One young player who is already making an impact is Athens, Georgia native Martay Mattox. The high school quarterback turned cornerback has now moved over to safety, where coaches believe his size and athleticism can be fully utilized.

The young Mattox followed the current trend and graduated high school early to enroll at South Carolina in time to go through spring practice, and it would appear that move is already paying dividends for him.

"He's real smart, athletic, we're moving him from corner to safety because we felt he's got a long stride and he can cover some field," said Ward. "With our defense we're going to be playing a lot more man coverage this year, so we're going to try him at free safety and see if he can help us there. But he's been impressive for the five practices he's been here."

Ellis Johnson echoed that same sentiment, but said that he will continue to evaluate Mattox and since he is so young, it is entirely possible his position could change again.

"Yeah, nothing's ever permanent but it's not an intended move just to try him a couple days, we hope it's going to work and hope he's going to be there the rest of the time," said Johnson. "We're trying to get as many guys in that safety position as we can, competing for those jobs. It's been better for Damario (Jeffrey) and it's been better for Devonte (Holloman). To develop some players out back I think those two moves are really going to be better for us."

The scrimmage Saturday seemed to reaffirm the confidence in position changes to the assistant head coach in charge of defense, and he singled out those young players as well as several along in the interior of the line to praise after that workout.

"The pleasing things, I think some of the young guys on the perimeter, they've got the talent to play," said Johnson. "There were a lot of mistakes on some things that haven't repped very much. But making plays, fundamentals, technique, I thought they looked pretty good. I'm at this point optimistic that the positional moves we made in that area can hold up. There was a lot of good stuff up front. Melvin (Ingram) had a great day. Devin (Taylor) had a great day. Kelcy Quarles other than a few missed assignments with new things, he did a great job. The linebackers played fairly well. It was overall pretty pleasing, just typical sloppy first scrimmage. But we got a lot done."

Johnson also added that he hoped to keep a lot of players in the same position to add experience, especially in place of some veterans who may not be playing as much this spring. One of the ultimate goals is to improve on third down, and Johnson said he thinks this is one way the Gamecocks can make big strides in that area.

"Well, they won't change throughout the spring," said Johnson. "We've got to continue to evaluate those kids out back and see if we can continue to move Devonte (Holloman) and Damario (Jeffrey). Keep working with the younger players. We're not going to give (Shaq) Wilson, and Travian Robertson and some of those guys like Gilmore, they're not getting very many snaps in scrimmages because we're going to put those other guys out there and see if we can get them ready to help in the fall. That's pretty well it and obviously we're starting to get into some third down work now. Our coach I'm sure will put more and more of that in because that's an area we've got to get better on defense."

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